I am Mentally Ill-Should I Tell My Boss? You Must I Say? But do so carefully?

There is general consensus amongst scientists about two things- one, the curse of Mental Illness is spreading fast and second, as a general rule, severe mental illnesses like Depression, Bipolar Disorder or even Schizophrenia strike early in life.

So if you suffer from Mental Illness and have already joined a job or are applying for a job or in midst of a career shift (young changing jobs twice before completing five years of service is becoming a norm in India), you may face an awkward existential dilemma, the mother of all questions

-“Should or should not I tell about my Mental Illness” to my boss.

Well it is  difficult question – Damn if you confess or disclose, damn if you do not.

This is the first instinct.

Forget about confessing to your boss, many a times telling about your mental illness to some one you consider close friend or a close colleague too can spell trouble for you.

It probably might have happened to you, such is the stigma around Mental Illness in the country.

But it need not be always. Change is in the offing -even though in slow motion.

And you can be that process of change.

I too faced similar question two decades back.

And yes I was on a sticky wicket. I was few months in my new job-an insure private job where i had joined from my cushy Government job with full security of tenure.

I had just changed my job- from a successful Government of India officer to a high profile senior executive in a private sector corporate. While in Government, on deputation to Konkan Railway project, I had become a small time celebrity in financial markets of Mumbai, for my rope-tricks in finances money for completion of project in an extremely difficult market. And this helped to in getting plucked by Essar Group to work as one of its youngest Vice President at the age of 37.

Yes, it was Circa 1997. Era of young being offered high six figure salary in India had not yet arrived in true sense and I had all i could aspire for-a fat salary twenty five times my last drawn government salary, perks of a corporate job including a big house in posh Lokhandwala, a good car and flashy position of Vice President Corporate Finance in newly established Corporate Treasury at Essar House. Sumptuous lunch and dinner with high and mighty  of corporate and finance sector at 21st Floor private diner at Essar House with promoters Shashi and Ravi Ruia was mine for asking and so was occasional business trip in plane/ helicopter that promoters owned.

But my corporate plane came crashing down fast.

In hind-sight I was done in by the stress carried froward from Konkan days,  punishing (at times also humiliating) twenty hour work schedule in new  job, sheer disruptive nature of change and sudden loss of job security (in government you know no one can throw you out of job) were amongst many reasons.

But there was a more existential reason.

I found complete mismatch between my personal core values and those of my new employers. It sent me in vicious circle of asking why I left my cushy government job for such people. And i went down the drain, even though promoters never even once made me do any thing (nor even suggested that I did) that was against my values.

To cut the long story short, I started entering depressive pit slowly from November, 1997 and then it took traction and by February 1998 I had my complete nervous breakdown. It was followed by a repeat nervous break exactly after six months.

Well the first breakdown gave me a label, “Suffering from Acute Clinical Depression” but the diagnosis after second break-down was a gag-order. My shrink summarily pronounced me guilty and handed over the life-sentence – “Suffering with incurable Bipolar Affective Disorder-I”.

Well you may ask me? What did I do? Did I tell my Boss?

Answer, a bit later.

I did not go down the depressive pit over night. It was there for all to see in the office that something was wrong. But most were confused (including Essar heir apparent then all of 27 years, Prashant Ruia now Group Managing Director) as to what was wrong with me.

But when I had my first mental break-down near Juhu beach in my car on way to office, before directing the driver to head for home, I first called my two bosses including Jatinder Mehra Essar Steel Managing Director that my mind had cracked. I was in no position to work. I needed leave.

It was as simple as that. It did not even occur once to me, that I should lie.

Well you might ask me, what happened.

Was I stigmatized for disclosure. Did I lose my job.?

Well nothing like that happened.

In retrospect such blunt “Glasnost” about Mental Illness can make you lose job , it is not a theoretical question.

In my case, opposite happened.

I had no leave (i was new in job) to my credit, but i was given sufficient time to recuperate. Well was I stigmatized after return to job. No on the contrary, between two breakdowns, I was also taken to an important foreign visit, where I accompanied Ravi Ruia Essar Vice Chairman and Jatinder Mehra Essar Steel MD to Italy.

Even after my second breakdown, I was not thrown out of job. However, my job content was reduced to help me come to terms with life. Ruias spent millions But here is an important declaration, my salary was never stopped even though I literally did not contribute any thing professionally.

It was 1998.

Such an honest disclosure about Mental Illness was sure recipe for losing job.

Contrarily, my honesty about severe debilitating mental illness worked in my favor.

Many young people in the office did not understand my illness. But most seniors, they became my “rainbow coalition” to protect me and give me space to be normal again.

And they did so for a year of half.

Well my mental illness did not end in 1998.

It continued to haunt me and  play truant ever since then and does so even now. But I have always received support of my peer group, employers and clients when i needed most.

Fortunately we are in 2017. When I started the campaign- “Own Up, Open Up and Talk Mental Illness” early this Month, and celebrate this year as one of “Hope, Love and Pride” for Mentally Ill”, many young and not so young people have started their disclosure- many are doing it on social media and telling me to count them.

Depending upon your personal choice and conditions, you need not go for full disclosure in public ( how ever I will be happy if you do), but when it comes to disclosure to your boss or employer, I have few suggestions.

Let me put a caveat I am no psychiatrist or clinical psychologist or a Mental Health professional. But like you I am a key stake holder like you, take your own decision at free will. But here are some pointers-

  1. Do not Disclose while applying for a Job: Whether it is a government job or private job. If there is a question about your suffering from Mental illness in written application form, just ignore it -write a plain lie- “I do-not suffer from Mental Illness”. If you disclose at this stage, you will certainly not get the job. You may have hundred pluses but this one minus, will see you out of chance to get that job.
  2. If you are Working in Government/ PSU: take your time before disclosing. When you realize, that you have a boss who understands you, tell him/ her. Some times you may have to disclose, just because you need long accommodation to recuperate. But let such disclosure be verbal. And lesser the number of people you confide in, it is better-what i mean is that whole world need not know about your Mental Illness even though normally in a government job, you have a fraternity to protect you and typically there is job security which is difficult to take away. But be cautious while writing the reason for your leave in the “Leave Application”  Even in my case, where I always had full disclosure, I was advised even by my psychiatrist to write “viral fever/ Jaundice” etc for reason for leave and my false medical certificate initially was given by my “family physician”.  If writing a lie saves your life and job it better be. Best is to have verbal confidence of your boss and to ensure your mental illness is not written there in black and white on paper. You can be bolder if you work in progressive government PSUs like DMRC or if you belong to the elite civil services. central services which have their own way to protect their colleagues or if your professional credentials are so well established that disclosure will not harm you.
  3. If you Work in IT/Consulting or any other Knowledge Driven Organization: These are the organizations with most stressful environment. Also working hours in such institutions are very long. It is here that maximum burn out of young are happening and mental illness getting triggered. Fortunately these are also the companies which are also in the front line of recognizing this fact that mental illness can get triggered in high stress full environment. Many such companies have already established system of taking care of such needs of their employees.. If your company is one at the forefront with such realization, you must confess at the first sign of distress, lest the problem gets compounded. If your organization is cut-throat, simply take time off on some other pretext but get yourself treated.
  4. If you work in Indian Corporate: My personal interaction with most family based Indian corporate (including professional Tata Group) gives me credence to believe that these are the most humane institutions when it comes to medical needs of their employees or employee’s families. If you are working here and you develop mental illness, after creating an enabling set up, you must disclose. If you disclose, chances of better accommodation are there. If you don’t in any case your faltering professional performance will get noticed. My own personal experience of disclosing about my mental illness in such organization has been extraordinarily good.
  5. If you work in a Multinational : Probably these are the most cut throat institutions and you must be most conservative in disclosure if at all you decide. Barring few best practices companies in most such companies profit and loss account is more important than employees.

In last two decades, many progressive Indian corporate and government organizations have realized the necessity to provide all types of help to their employees suffering from Mental Illness. But stigma continues to run deep. So to disclose or not to disclose will remain a difficult question. There is no ready made formula. It all depends. On you. Severity of your illness. Whether your boss is a gentleman or a not. Whether your organization values its P&L more or its employees more. Make your own decision.

But one thing is axiomatic. Before disclosing your Mental Illness to your boss, if you decide, take your own time. If you have to err, err for the caution.

You may tell or not tell your boss. But you must tell to you, your family and your friends that you are suffering from Mental Illness, that it is not your fault. And that it needed to be fixed.

So Telling your Boss or not is a choice? But acceptance of Mental Illness to self (owning-up),  telling your near and dear ones (opening up),  and approaching for professional help (talking up) for your Mental Illness is not a choice. It is your duty to yourself.

And you are not alone. Millions suffer. But few have courage to own-up, open-up, and talk Mental Illness.

So stand up my dear fellow Indians. Get counted. Celebrate the year as “One of Hope, Love and Pride for Mentally Ill”


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